Urvashi and Parvathy Thiruvothu in Ullozhukku
Urvashi and Parvathy Thiruvothu in UllozhukkuYouTube screengrab

Urvashi, Parvathy are brilliant in Ullozhukku, a tense exploration of family dynamics

Neither Parvathy nor Urvashi allow you to remember for a moment that they’re playing roles. Much of the plot of ‘Ullozhukku’ – directed by Christo Tomy – progresses through the glances they exchange, the conversations they have with each other.
Ullozhukku (Malayalam)(4 / 5)

There is something about funerals, perhaps the drama that unfolds around the dead on their behalf or the sense of closure that triggers beginnings, that makes it ripe for stories. Ullozhukku – meaning undercurrent – directed by Christo Tomy is one such film where a death in the family brings with it a flood of emotions.

Anju’s (Parvathy) home in Kuttanad is flooded but she’s like a fish out of water. Her story is shown in deft strokes. A blushing young woman in a saree shop, an awkward bride keeping up pretences on a boat, a reluctant wife in bed, and a frustrated caretaker to a sick man. Christo doesn’t fill the gaps with long-winded explanations or flashbacks, he leaves us to put the pieces together. This makes for an interesting screenplay, yes, but it’s also because the story itself is so familiar to the audience. The unhappiness of a young woman for whom marriage is destiny.

Leelamma (Urvashi) is Anju’s mother-in-law. She dotes on her bedridden son and is loving towards Anju too. The two women are grieving in their own ways, one for the life denied to her and the other for the life she is convinced she has led. Neither Parvathy nor Urvashi allow you to remember for a moment that they’re playing roles. Much of the plot progresses through the glances they exchange, the conversations they have with each other. Both the actors are simply spectacular, letting themselves dissolve completely into their respective characters.

There is nothing that Urvashi cannot do on screen, and she is magnificent as Leelamma, portraying a mother in mourning and also a woman who must confront her own guilt and secrets. From suffocating love to righteous anger, Urvashi’s sterling performance captures it all. Parvathy is raw and edgy as Anju – she is guilty, too, but there’s a quiet sense of assertion in how she speaks. There’s a brutal honesty in her manner, a woman who has been forced to toe the line and is yet constantly drawing boundaries whenever she can. She will clean her bedridden husband’s body but not his genitals. When an older woman attempts to kiss her belly, she makes her rejection known. Leelamma’s crimes are more likely to be forgiven in a patriarchal society than Anju’s. It is credit to the uninhibited and brilliant Parvathy (and the excellent writing) that Anju doesn’t become a convenient villain. She is cold but only because she was thrust into this winter from a spring she wasn’t ready to leave.

Much of the film is set inside their home, the women going from room to room, bearing their respective burdens. Sometimes framed behind the bars of the window, watching the ceaseless rain. The river they must cross to go to town is also a metaphor for the journeys they must make. Each of these trips leads to a significant chapter, an understanding or a reconciliation. Nothing might be said, but the undercurrent within propels them forward. The editing (Kiran Das) is seamless, and Sushin Shyam’s background score creates ripples – just the right amount of doubt and discomfort – as the story flows like water.

The male characters are on the sidelines. Prasant Murali as the bedridden husband hardly speaks and yet he is effective as Thomaskutty. He doesn’t feel like a one-dimensional character and this is because we see him through the two women around him. He is neither an angel nor a monster. He has a presence in the film and isn’t merely an object of pity or revulsion.

Arjun Radhakrishnan’s Rajeev is a waiter – ironically, all he does is make the most important person in his life wait and wait for eternity. I wish this character had more shades to him. Not only because there is a predictability to how he behaves but also because the plot inadvertently affirms a popular belief – women who pursue forbidden love are bound to be punished for it. The camera’s focus on Anju’s father’s (Alencier) face, an expression of relief and approval at a crucial juncture, also suggests this.

But, it would be unfair to read Ullozhukku only through this prism because what the two women learn from their respective journeys is that ultimately they only have an illusion of love that they are chasing. And if they must someday own it, they have to manufacture their own reality through solidarities that are hard to imagine. And who can stop the rain if it has decided there must be a flood?

Sowmya Rajendran writes on gender, culture and cinema. She has written over 25 books, including a nonfiction book on gender for adolescents. She was awarded the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar for her novel Mayil Will Not Be Quiet in 2015.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film’s producers or any other members of its cast and crew.

The News Minute